Intimacy, Technology and Emojis – Amanda Gesselman

Amanda Gesselman is interviewed by Jennifer Power

Jennifer Power (JP): Can you tell us a bit about your work as it relates to themes of technology and intimacy?

Amanda Gesselman (AG): I study new trends in people’s love and sex lives, and how they impact connection and well-being. In today’s world, these emerging trends almost always include technology, so I study how technology can be a conduit for meaningful connection. My recent work has included a study of 141,000 women from 190 countries around the world on how they’ve used technology in their sexual lives. My collaborators and I found that over half the sample had engaged in sexting, and this was relatively consistent across major world regions. Twenty percent of women around the world were also using apps to learn more about sex and sexual intimacy, which really emphasizes how linked technology and intimacy are in our world today.

My colleagues and I are currently working on an ongoing study of intimate connection in digital spaces, with a specific focus on adult entertainment cam-sites, where paying visitors can view and interact with a cam model in real time. Although these are marketed as and thought of as purely sexual spaces, a considerable proportion of these visitors don’t engage in explicitly sexual interactions or request nudity—one in three feel a personal connection with a model, and many of these visitors report feelings of social support, reduced loneliness, and an equal amount of emotional and sexual gratification.

Last, my colleagues and I are also working on another ongoing study of love and sex in the time of COVID-19. We have a large international sample that we’ve surveyed in four waves starting in March 2020, when lockdown recommendations first began in the United States. Our preliminary results have shown strong evidence that in ‘lockdown’, people are heavily relying on technology to create intimate interactions and maintain their intimate relationships.

JP: Human intimacy is often thought of as entirely human—something that exists between people involving emotional and/or physical contact. How should we imagine technology within this?

AG: In my work, I see technology as both bridge and a shapeable tool. I conceptualize technology as the piece that can work to bridge the gap and strengthen a relationship between two people, and also as a tool that we can—with work and some stumbling—figure out how to shape into something that facilitates our human needs. For instance, now that we have the technological capability to find romantic and sexual partners using technology, we have to figure out how to connect with them in that same space where there aren’t any of the usual visual cues of attraction and compatibility. In my work on emojis, my collaborators and I found that people who used emojis more frequently with potential partners also went on more dates and had more sex over the past year. More frequent use of emojis was associated with personality characteristics like emotional intelligence and more secure attachment, both of which tend to be implicated as characteristics of good quality relationship partners. So these people, likely unknowingly, may have found a way to successfully advertise their traits in a single character and build chemistry with potential partners in ways that people who didn’t have those traits did not do.

JP: There is a common perception that technology is playing an increasing role in human relationships due to new digital technologies (mobile phones, mobile cameras, dating apps and so forth). Do you think this is the case? If so, what are the most significant changes that may have occurred as a result of this?

AG: I do. I think the most significant changes that technology has ushered forth in our relationships are the ability to connect with people over long distances, the ability to be in contact frequently, and the ability to harness it for sexual gratification. Not too many generations ago, we met our long-term partners within a few blocks of our family home. Being able to span distances and be exposed to people that you may have never encountered otherwise is very valuable, I think, for finding someone you’d really like to spend your time with, who you’re really attracted to, and who is really compatible with you. It also has value in expanding our minds, introducing us to different people and practices. And it can provide more of a safe space to start meeting people before potentially putting your life on the line with an in-person meet-up.

The ability to be in contact immediately, frequently, and privately has surely helped to create and maintain emotionally close relationships. Think of couples who, decades ago, had to endure one going off to war, or off on a months-long sailing trip, or even today’s couples who may be subject to stigma and discrimination if they’re seen together in public. Technology has provided a way for those people to keep in touch with their support system while being physically separated.

And I think that the role technology is now playing in sex is hard to ignore. Technology and the internet have created a space for any sexual interest to be shared and discussed, and have created methods for engaging sexually without having to, or having the opportunity to, give someone access to your physical body.

JP: What questions relating to technology and intimacy or technology and sexuality do you find yourself thinking or wondering about?

AG: I wonder what long-term changes we would see if human-looking sex robots became widespread and affordable. I wonder what the next generations will come up with to serve their romantic and sexual needs. I wonder if future generations of older people will be less lonely because they’re used to interacting through technology and may have an easier time staying connected through those means.

JP: Do you think that the COVID-19 social lockdown periods are likely to have changed the way people use technology to create intimacy with other people? Do you think such changes will have any lasting effects on cultures of sex or intimacy?

AG: I do, and I have some evidence of it in the study my colleagues and I are doing on sex and relationships in the time of COVID-19. We’ve seen that people—and especially people who are single and who are lonelier—are turning more toward technology to connect with other people. This includes sexual digital behavior, as well. People reported engaging in more sexting and sexually explicit video-chatting, and some subgroups of people are reporting signing up for and using online dating services more. I think the pandemic has changed how we’re able to connect, but hasn’t changed the need to, so we’re seeing people adapt to their current means.

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Amanda Gesselman PhD is a social psychologist at the Kinsey Institute and the inaugural Anita Aldrich Endowed Research Scientist at Indiana University. Dr. Gesselman’s research examines dating and sexuality of single adults, with an emphasis on technology and health behaviors; the psychology, sexuality, and health of romantic couples; and the intersection of human development, stigma, and sexuality.

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